Every society has certain books that help define — in broad terms — their cultural identity. Some include holy books such as “The Koran” and/or epic stories such as “The Odyssey” and American society is no different. The United States has a holy book (“The Bible”), a secular book (“On the Origin of Species”), and a founding document (“The Constitution”) that altogether help define American culture. One problem (other than the fact that some will inevitably disagree with my book/document choices) is that we misread important sections of each work in ways that demean others thereby weakening ourselves.
The Good Book — The standard way of reading the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and the way I was taught in Sunday school, has been that Eve was subservient to Adam because she was made from one of his ribs (the “Second Story of Creation” in Genesis 2:21–23). This gets translated into a large segment of American society believing that men are ‘first and foremost’ relative to women not only in the eyes of God but also in the daily lives that we lead. This erroneous translation has had negative practical effects (i.e., women get paid only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men) and horrific consequences: one study calculated that the number of women killed by a male partner between 2001 and 2012 was “nearly double” the number of American soldiers lost during the same time period in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a misreading of “The Good Book” because it emphasizes the “Second Story” over the “First Story of Creation” where it shows that Adam and Eve were created simultaneously on equal ground (Genesis 1:26–28). “The Bible,” like many holy books, is filled with contradictory stories but shouldn’t we emphasize the stories that promote respect and compassion for one another instead of those that appear to highlight the judging and subservience of others?
The Survival Guide — In the late 19th Century there was, as Randall Fuller spotlights in the title of his new manuscript, a “Book that Changed America.” It was Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species.” By the early 20th Century, according to Fuller, “Darwinian theory had become an indisputable aspect of American cultural life…it provided an ordering principle for a society that seemed to grow more complex each year.” We translate Darwin’s hypothesis into American society by emphasizing self-interest over all else and by following euphemisms such as “if you want to be number one, you have to look out for number one.” The irony is that Darwin did not only NOT coin the term “survival of the fittest” but he argued against the idea in research he later conducted to try and prove his thoughts in “Origin.” Darwin would later write in “The Descent of Man” that “it hardly seems probable that the number of men gifted with such virtues as bravery and sympathy…could be increased through natural selection, that is, by survival of the fittest…I perhaps attributed too much to the action of natural selection or the survival of the fittest.” He actually writes in support of a “survival of the kindest” theory: “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Shouldn’t we read what Darwin actually discovered in his research and not simply what he hypothesized about? We have misread Darwin’s initial hypothesis as an answer for how to “order society” that he, himself, did not agree with when he concluded his research. A consequence of such misreading is that we are building a society on the misguided notion that you can be either successful OR someone who helps others…and American children are learning this all too well. A 2014 Harvard Graduate School of Education study of 10,000 middle- and high-school students found that “almost 80 percent” said that their parents and teachers taught them that their personal “high achievement or happiness” were more important than “caring for others.” Do we really want to construct and live in a society of self-absorbed achievers?
The Founding Document — President Trump has consistently made the argument that children born in the United States to undocumented immigrant parents are not American citizens. There is a ‘slight’ problem with the President’s reading of “The Constitution” and that would be the 14th Amendment, which says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.” One consequence of interpreting or ignoring the 14th Amendment is that it betrays who we are as a country: a country of immigrants and a beacon of compassion and hope for the “tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The Prime Minister of Ireland, Mr. Enda Kenny, said it best this past Saint Patrick’s day with President Trump at his side: “Saint Patrick was an immigrant, patron saint of Ireland and for many people around the globe he’s also a symbol of, indeed the patron of, immigrants…Ireland came to America because…we believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America.” To misread the words of the 14th Amendment so that it divides naturally born Americans not only weakens our country but also demeans its legacy and the people who built it.
When we disrespect others because we misread the books that we believe define who we think we are as a people, we are at least ten to twelve chapters deep into our own “Paradise Lost.” If we misread and do not take the time to carefully reflect upon the great books and documents that we use to “order society,” our policy choices will seemingly appear to be always stuck between Scylla and Charybdis. America has successfully navigated its way through history, as Mr. Kenny reminded us, by following its own beacon of hope and compassion. It’s time that we not only follow that beacon again but also use its light to reread the blueprints of how and why our ship was built.
Originally published at medium.com